In addition to the money she reportedly netted at a high-dollar fundraiser held in Atlanta, Georgia last month, there may be another – much more important reason that S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley has suddenly decided to sell South Carolina’s maritime interests down the river.

Need a hint?

It’s her rumored 2016 presidential campaign – an ambition Haley is hoping to advance by securing a high-profile, prime time speaking engagement at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida next August.

In fact, several of the same sources who recently bragged about Georgia port backers “buying Haley off” tell FITS that both the governor and her Maryland-based political consultant, Jon Lerner, have been aggressively lobbying Georgia Republican National Committeeman Alec L. Poitevint II for a prime time speaking slot for Haley at the convention.


In February, Poitevint was named chairman of the 2012 convention’s “Committee on Arrangements” – a role that gives him the power to determine which aspiring GOP politicians receive these coveted speaking slots.

Why is this relevant to Haley’s recent flip-flop on port issues? In July of this year Poitevint – a major GOP donor – was reelected to his second term as … you guessed it … chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority.

Hmmmm …

Shortly after her 2010 election, Haley instigated a major spat with Georgia – sending a clear warning across the Savannah River regarding port-related issues.

“You now have a governor who does not like to lose,” Haley told a cheering crowd of S.C. State Ports Authority supporters in Charleston. “Georgia has had their way with us for way too long, and I don’t have the patience to let it happen anymore.”

Last month, though – right around the time that Georgia donors allegedly began stroking checks to her campaign – Haley’s tune began to change.

“Every port is different, and every port has its challenges,” Haley told Savannah’s WJCL/FOX 28 last month. “We have to say ‘What do we need to do that is right for the region?’ Our goal is to make sure every port (in the region) is successful.”

Wait … what? We thought Haley’s job was to promote South Carolina’s best interests – particularly in light of our state’s chronically-high unemployment rate, low income levels, deteriorating competitiveness and recessionary economy.

Haley didn’t just soften her rhetoric, though, she actually instructed the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) – whose board she recently took over – to reconsider its prior rejection of environmental permits sought by Georgia for a $600 million harbor deepening project.

This is the same project, incidentally, which resulted in Georgia recently stabbing South Carolina in the back.

What’s at stake here? Hundreds of millions of dollars – and the future of two of the Eastern Seaboard’s biggest ports.

Specifically, both Savannah and Charleston are working feverishly to deepen the waterways leading to their ports in the hopes of accommodating the next generation of super-sized container ships, and while South Carolina may not be able to stop Georgia’s plans – its ability to delay them has been an important point of leverage.

Once the fourth-busiest port in America, Charleston has seen its competitive position plummet over the last seven years. In fact, Charleston has slipped all the way to No. 12 in the nation according to rankings published by the American Association of Port Authorities.

Why the decline? Well, as we’ve noted on literally dozens of occasions, South Carolina continues to operate its port system under a 1950s-style “total state control” model – one that forbids private investment in public infrastructure. Meanwhile our competitors – like Alabama and Virginia – have dramatically expanded their port infrastructure (and created thousands of new jobs) by leveraging private investment.

Our state’s leaders – including House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Senate President Glenn McConnell – were specifically warned in July 2006 that South Carolina’s restrictions against free market investment were “counterproductive” and would “discourage investment” in our facilities.

They didn’t listen – and Haley has done nothing to change that failed management structure since she was elected.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) will vote Thursday on whether to approve the Georgia permit requests.

It’s not expected that SCDHEC will reverse its position and approve the permits, but it was under no obligation to grant Georgia a public forum. More importantly, it’s not clear how aggressively Haley and the agency will defend our state’s environmental and business interests as this process moves forward.

Clearly, Georgia thinks it has our governor in the bag.

“(Poitevint)’s been bragging that his ‘South Carolina problem’ is taken care of,” a source familiar with the alleged quid pro quo tells FITS.

Another source confirmed to FITS that Poitevint has been in direct discussions with Lerner – who allegedly offered to help tone down Haley’s rhetoric on port-related issues in exchange for consideration at the GOP convention.

Haley herself is said to have offered to intervene in the SCDHEC case – again with the expectation of getting a prime time speaking engagement at the convention in return.

It’s not expected that SCDHEC will reverse its position and approve the permits, but it was under no obligation to grant Georgia a public forum. More importantly, it’s not clear how aggressively Haley (and other state agencies) will defend South Carolina’s environmental and business interests as this process moves forward.

A spokesman for the Georgia State Ports Authority did not immediately respond to our request for a comment on this story. As is its custom, Haley’s office refused to comment.

So what do you think? Would Haley really betray what could be one of our state’s most important competitive advantages solely to secure a prime time speaking slot at the Republican National Convention?

Vote in our poll and post your thoughts in our comments section below …

UPDATE: We can’t believe we’re typing this, but … sources tell FITS that SCDHEC’s staff has recommended approval of the Georgia permits to the agency’s governing board.

UPDATE II: Confirmed … SCDHEC’s staff has recommended that the agency’s governing board approve Georgia’s port dredging project “at full depth.” This is insane … we never thought the board would flip-flop on this issue and sell out South Carolina’s interests to appease Georgia.

UPDATE III: The fix is in … Haley’s SCDHEC board has voted unanimously to approve the Georgia port dredging project. For a complete report on this stab in the back, click here.

UPDATE IV: S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms is calling for an investigation to determine whether pressure was applied on SCDHEC to reverse its decision.

UPDATE V: S.C. Senator Vincent Sheheen has called for the entire SCDHEC board to step down.